Sunday, 4 November 2018

Our Friends in the North East

Our Friends in the North East
Why I didn't make it to Wylam

Driving north from my native Essex there are a series of landmarks that trigger a feeling that I'm moving in the right direction: the will it / won't it congestion gamble where the end of the M11 meets the A14, the bushes that signify the end of the motorway section of the A1 at Peterborough, the Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3 outside RAF Wittering, and the now sadly closed and boarded up Ram Jams public house. Next comes Stamford, then Grantham, then Doncaster, the cooling towers at Ferrybridge, the run to Scotch Corner, before we finally get somewhere that we always feel compelled to stop, get out of the car and marvel at its iconic majesty.

Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North never ceases to make me feel that arrived somewhere, and on this occasion that somewhere is a few days in Newcastle.
Newcastle is somewhere, to my shame, I've only been once before. That was four years ago almost to the day where it provided a welcome overnight stop on a drive to a holiday in Edinburgh. The briefest taste of the place and the friendliness of the people we met meant it was always somewhere I'd wanted to return to, so when a suitable opportunity presented itself we did.

After settling in and unwinding a while at the quayside apartment we'd booked our first destination was, as it had been four years previously, The Bridge Tavern.

Situated between the stanchions of the famous Tyne Bridge, there's been an ale house on this site for around two hundred years. This was demolished when the bridge was built then rebuilt in its shadow, although if I hadn't been absolutely certain of where it had been last time we were there I'd have thought that I was in the wrong spot because, as the picture below shows, its former name of the Newcastle Arms is still proudly displayed on the stonework.
Making our way upstairs we found that the tables we had occupied all those years before were free once more, as if awaiting our return. I also remembered two of the things that made my previous visit so memorable. The first was the friendliness of the people, willing to engage in conversation about absolutely anything. To be fair most of my conversations in pubs involve beer, and those that don't have often started that way, but rather than a short answer or a "sorry mate, cheers", there seems to be a genuine interest in both the beer and you. The second, remember I am from Essex, is sparklers. That's all I'm saying.
My first beer was the Tavern Inn Midnight Oats. Brewed on the premises its light roasty chocolate taste perfectly setting up my appetite for both beer and food for the evening. The food would be haggis toasties with quails eggs accompanied by pigs head croquettes alongside Wylam Brewery's hazy, juicy DDH IPA The Shape.
There was time for one more before we moved on, so I opted for Almasty's Chocolate and Caramel Stout, which delivered every flavour it promised, a wonderful beer, and its taste was still lingering tantalisingly on my tongue as we walked along the banks of the Tyne.
We took pictures, you have too, the Tyne bridge, Baltic Flour Mill, Gateshead Millennium Bridge and The Sage centre, look so beautiful with their lights reflecting off the water, but in reality my mind had already drifted a little further down the river, just beyond the mouth of the Ouseburn.
The Free Trade Inn had, over many years, taken on an almost mythical status for me. It had become the pub that I never quite made it to, fate intervening on every previous attempt. Tonight I was determined to make it.

As I got closer I could feel the anticipation building. They do say that you should never meet your idols, and was beginning to hope that this didn't apply to pubs as well. I needn't have worried. The Free Trade Inn was everything I'd hoped and more.
This white-banded island of a building, like the prow of a ship gazing out over the Tyne, stands alone, silent and majestic. Inside it's warm, both in temperature and greeting, the yellowing walls and stripped wooden counter full to bursting with hand pumps and keg fonts. I walk its length and back again contemplating my first beer, Mordue's A'l Wheat Pet, before taking a seat at one of the lower level tables, it's blue star still blazing beneath the patina of years of spilled beer. I don't think I've ever felt so at home in a pub straight away. I may have even let out an audible sigh.
My wife and children relaxed into their seats and started a conversation, it had been a long day, but I found myself captivated by my surroundings, hardly able to believe that I'd actually made it. Time for more beer.

There'd been a Left Handed Giant tap takeover the previous weekend and quite a few of the beers were still on so, despite being warned by the attentive bar staff that they were pricier than some of the other beers I opted for a dry and bitter Cycle City IPA on keg which disappeared in no time at all.
Almasty's excellent Echelon Pale was followed by Beavertown's Grateful Bread Breakfast Kvass, one of their Tempus Project beers, by which time the day was starting to catch up with me at last and it was time to go back.
Visiting the gents at The Free Trade Inn is a feast for the eyes, with years of graffiti overlapping and interweaving with no inch of wall uncovered. There's humour, insults, pathos and pictures, all human life displayed in pen and ink. I lingered a little longer than I perhaps should have taking it in.
There was something else that needed doing as we made our way outside, and, like hundreds of drinkers before me, took a picture back up the Tyne towards the lights of city.
Wednesday dawned and after an amazing breakfast at Quay Ingredient (thank you for the tip Mr Vane) we headed out of town to the edge of the Roman Empire.

I didn't expect Vindolanda to offer much in the way of beer, however I was surprised to see that there were references to it on some of the tablets that had been discovered preserved in the mud there.
Not far away is the Twice Brewed Inn and Brewery which depending on which direction you're coming from is either in Once Brewed (East) or Twice Brewed (west). Dating from at least the 18th Century, this solid stone building is warm and inviting, standing up to the elements in this desolate part of Northumberland.
The beers, either cask or bottle are available on the bar to drink on the premises or take away. They all, usurprisingly have Roman-inspired names, and I went for the Ceres Dunkelweizen which had a light, prickly chocolate flavour and slid down very easily.
The brewery itself is in an adjoining building although we were more captivated by the 'Weather Forecasting Stone', although it was far windier than it was indicating.
Visits to the Roman Army Museum and Housesteads Roman Fort high up on the remains of Hadrians Wall, completed our day although, back in Newcastle that evening we did find a rather good Sardinian restaurant to have dinner.

Thursday was our last full day in Newcastle and we were going to use it to explore the city properly at last.

We'd only booked our visit a couple of days before we went, and after I tweeted that I was finally going to do the city justice I was inundated with suggestions of places to go for both food, and of course drink. There were so many we couldn't hope to visit them all, and there were a few sights we wanted to see too, we tried to do our best.
Breakfast was again taken at Quay Ingredient, bacon and maple syrup on french toast if you ask, before we headed uphill to the Castle and on to the Discovery Centre where the children could play at being children and let their hair down a bit.
Just on the Gateshead side of the river is the container community that is home to the By The River Brew Co., a brewery that is as much on the river as it is by it. Opened in the summer of 2017, it was perfectly placed to take advantage of the magnificent weather, becoming the hottest spot on the Tyne in more ways than one. If you had any beery folk on your Twitter or Instagram feed from the Newcastle area then you will have most likely read or seen the buzz around this place.
There was a chilly wind blowing along the river when we arrived so, although it was bright we made our way inside and made ourselves comfortable at the most central table in the place, one where we could soak up the atmosphere inside while still being able to look out over the Tyne.
The beer menu had plenty of interesting beer on offer but whenever you're at a brewery it makes obvious sense to order at least one that was brewed on the premises which is why Sarah and I both went for the Proto Banger IPA,  hoping that it would live up to it's name. We certainly weren't disappointed as it was indeed exactly as promised, a hazy, juicy IPA with soft dry finish.
The interior of the bar extends into a restaurant at the far end, and space is limited due to the nature of the place. Even though we hadn't realised it when we arrived it became clear that the tables around us, despite being unoccupied, were all reserved for lunch and we were lucky to actually get a seat inside. We were close to the wood burner too, providing welcoming warmth and despite there being plenty of outdoor seating no-one was prepared to brave the elements when room could be found inside.
I'd wanted to get to quite a few places today but one beer had caught my attention that I wanted to have before leaving. It's Not Mike Porter, a collaboration between By The River and Northern Monk, is big cherry vanilla coffee porter with the vanilla and chocolate flavours very clean and defined and the cherry lending an over-arching tartness. The finish was long, deep and lingering and stayed with me long after we'd left the bar and made our way back over the Tyne bridge into the heart of the city.
After spending the afternoon walking around the shops and markets clustered around the Grey's Monument, commemorating Charles, the second Earl Grey, the local-ish boy who became Prime Minister and under whose government slavery was abolished in the British Empire before having a tea named after him, we were in need of a drink and respite. We'd passed dAt bAr a on our way here, it's literally just around the corner, so that seemed as good a place as any.
A pizza and burger restaurant, I remember the buzz on social media when dAt bAr opened its door in early 2014 mainly due to its beer range. Now four years old, the decor is starting to show its age, unless of course it was originally designed to look a little tired in which case it's rather good.

As a first time visitor walking in I was confronted by a host of individual keg fonts with no obvious beer list or numbering system. Looking perplexed I asked what beer was on only to be pointed to the large chalk board to my right. Choosing Almasty's Breakfast IPA I was equally surprised when a seemingly unmarked font was approached and the beer poured. Spotting my expression the silver numbers on the bar top relating to the numbers on the board were pointed out to me by the man serving me, admitting that it had been a mystery to him too before he was shown.
The Breakfast IPA was big and hazy, the grapefruit and orange flavours very pronounced really like the breakfast juice it was attempting to mimic. Big juicy bitterness and a dry grapefruit flavour led it by the hand to the finish, the perfect after-shopping refresher.
Despite burgers for dinner being the order of the day we weren't going to eat here, I been advised by Emma Mitchell (@minkewales on twitter) to try nearby Meat:Stack who'd catered at her wedding, but looking at the list again we decided we wanted another drink here first.

We went for Summer Wine's Ripple Heights with its sweet aroma of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. This is a beer that would probably be too sweet for many and although I'd consider myself to have a relatively sweet tooth it was right on the borderline for me. This beer has a particularly good finish akin to a lingering frozen raspberry death rattle.
Meat:Stack didn't disappoint. We chose the upstairs bar in preference to the noisier, darker bar downstairs mainly because we all preferred it, and we did have the place to ourselves for most of our dinner.
The cheeseburgers were amazing. I went for the Yellowstone, a double cheeseburger with baconnaise, hash browns, fried onions and American cheese, we all had the beef dripping fries, and this was all washed down with Brewdog's Lost Lager. This was one of the best burgers I've had and we'll be heading here again next time we're back in town.

I'd wanted Wylam to be my ultimate destination this evening, but as we made our way up Northumberland Street it was becoming apparent that the previous days exertions along Hadrians Wall coupled with the time we'd been out today meant that had started to look pretty unlikely.
Just around the corner on St Mary's Place, down some steps between a pub and a restaurant is The Town Mouse and, as it was close, this is where we went.

Warm and inviting, pretty much as soon as I'd walked in I found myself in conversation with the barman and another chap at the bar, I felt at home right away. There was only one table near the door, the chill of a late October evening keeping a space that we happily occupied.

One of the things that makes my heart sing most when I'm away is a beer selection full of beers and breweries I haven't tried before, and as the people of Newcastle are justifiably proud of their local beer scene and that of the North East of England, it had been my pleasure to drink beer from local breweries wherever possible. The beer list at The Town Mouse micropub was no exception.
The North Riding Brewery in Scarborough may well be just under a hundred miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne but it's still in the North East, and it was their NE Pale on cask that I opted for first, it's big juicy bitterness sliding down incredibly quickly it was immediately time for another beer.

Box Social were a brewery I'd heard  Myles Lambert sing the praises of on the North East Sippin Forecast podcast and seeing that they had their Blackcurrant Ripple on keg was a temptation I didn't have to resist. Unfortunately for me, the barman proclaimed that he wasn't happy with the way it was looking so asked my to chose something else.

Reluctantly I opted for Wilde Child and Brass Castle's Adoption Process Passion fruit IPA, however no sooner had I paid for that than another beer appeared alongside it. Looking up, I was told that although he wasn't willing to sell it he was perfectly happy to give me a half to try as there was not really anything wrong with it.
It was getting quite busy in the basement bar now, those who had lingered after work were now being joined by those out for the evening, and our table was being eyed quite hungrily by those standing. While we didn't feel under any pressure to vacate it tiredness had started to creep up on me, and I started to work out how far away from Wylam Brewery we were.  Fifteen minutes doesn't seem like a long walk, but having two tired teenagers in tow I knew it wasn't going to happen tonight.
It was my wife who came to the rescue and suggested a compromise. Although we had to leave our apartment by eleven she was perfectly happy to drive me over for a drink there when it opened at midday. Satisfied and frankly grateful for this we finished our drinks and began the anticipated half hour walk back to where we were staying.

Fortunately the Metro came to our rescue, and double-fortunately it took us directly to Newcastle Central Station, home to Centrale Beer Shop, although it did take a little while going up and down the platform until we actually found it.
Situated on platform 12, although I now only know that in hindsight, the selection of beer available was staggering. I could have spent a fortune here but showing much restraint and with the guidance of Bruce the owner I had soon amassed a fine selection of great beer from local breweries.
Bruce is very knowledgeable, and it was a pleasure talking to him about beer and the scene in Newcastle, he even gave me a tote bag to help carry them back. I promised him that it would go with me every where from now on, I'd become a walking advert for his shop, so if you see a lonely figure guarding beer in a Centrale bag in Essex, London, or further afield then that person could well be me.
A few beers back at our apartment looking out over the Tyne and it was time for bed on our last night. Still, there was Wylam tomorrow.

Except there wasn't.

Those of you who have been paying attention will have noticed that our last full day in Newcastle was a Thursday. Re-checking the brewery opening times I realised that I had my dates wrong. Today was Friday, and I'd checked the opening times for Saturday by mistake. Wylam wasn't opening until five o'clock in the evening, far too late for us. It was time to make other plans.

Turning to Twitter I needed a different plan for our journey home. Twitter responded and we were soon on our way to ...

I'll leave that one for my next post.

There are so many people I need to thank for their help and advice in making my short stay in the Toon so enjoyable. Although I didn't get to meet up with Myles, who I mentioned earlier, on this occasion the excellent North East Sippin Forecast podcast is well worth a listen and is now hopefully back on schedule. Similarly Emma @minkewales for Newcastle recommendations, and Andrew her husband (previously @sheriffmitchell on Twitter, but no more) for an amazingly helpful email pointing out the best places to visit along Hadrians wall. We almost managed them all. Whoever manages the twitter account for The Free Trade Inn @TheFreeTradeInn, I really sorry we never actually got to meet. To all the people I met along the way and told them that my family history takes me back to the North East thank you for humouring me, you listened very attentively. And lastly but definitely not least, a huge thank you to Daisy (@daisy_turnell) who was, for all intents and purposes my virtual Newcastle tour guide. Thank you so much for all your help and suggestions, and the invite to the brand new Anarchy tap room that I sadly couldn't attend. I definitely owe you a beer.

Next time I'm going to get to Wylam.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018


A Bottle Conditioned Beer Event

It''s a warm Thursday afternoon in early October and I'm sitting outside The White Horse in Parsons Green with a pint of Ilkley's Mangoes Overboard, occasionally checking my watch for the six o'clock deadline. It's a deadline that I really don't want to miss as tonight beer writers and brewers are gathered together to celebrate bottle-conditioned, and as we shall see, can-conditioned beer.
Bottle conditioning, as I'm sure you are well aware, is the process of adding priming sugars into a bottle containing beer which has little or no carbon dioxide which enables refermentation in the bottle. It is this that brings the beer into condition, continuing the fermentation which produces carbon dioxide, making the beer naturally carbonated and as similar, in many cases, to the cask conditioned product. To quote The Oxford Companion to Beer, "Bottle conditioning, when done properly, can result in a beer with a finer, silkier texture of carbonation, superior foam retention, more complex flavo(u)rs, longer ag(e)ing ability than beers that are "force carbonated"."

Gathering in the upstairs rooms, where once I brewed a Citron Pilsener with Martyn Cornell and Andy Parker, now of Elusive Brewing renown, we are seated at tables laden with glasses, and platters of bread, meat and cheese, ready for the panel in front of us to introduce both themselves and tonight's beers.
After a brief welcome from Rupert Ponsonby from R&R Teanmwork, who have invited us here tonight, Jeff Evans, editor of eight editions of the Good Bottled Beer Guide, is ready to give us a brief history of bottle-conditioned beer.

He asks us to forget the apocryphal story of it's invention some 400 or so years ago by the Hertfordshire rector and angler, Dr Alexander Nowell who, after a fishing trip, left a full bottle of home brewed ale by the river, only returning a few days later to discover the still full bottle had continued its fermentation. "He found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at opening". (Martyn Cornell also debunks the myth in this excellent post on the subject ). 

Potentially the story of bottle (or flask, or leather bag) conditioned beer goes back millennia, but certainly goes back to the 18th century when beer was first put into bottles for sale commercially. It was the advent of pasteurisation, the process that killed bacteria, making for a consistently uninfected product that meant that bottle conditioned beer became little more than a footnote in history.

With the formation of CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in 1971 there were only 5 bottle conditioned beers available in the UK, including Spingo from The Blue Anchor in Cornwall, Worthington's White Shield, and the recently revived Thomas Hardy's Ale, produced at that time by Eldridge Pope in Dorset.

With the uplift in cask conditioned beer there was, from the early 1980s, a revival in bottle conditioned beer. By 1990 there were more and more available, so many in fact that in 1991 CAMRA passed a motion at it's AGM to actively promote these beers. 
As a result of this Jeff persuaded CAMRA to produce a book on the subject, and in 1997 the CAMRA Guide to Real Ale in a Bottle was produced. He wasn't happy with either the title or the cover, and in 1998 this was relaunched as the Good Bottled Beer Guide.

By the time of the 2009 edition there were over 1300 bottle conditioned beers in the UK alone, with foreign bottle conditioned beers, including the iconic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, swelling that number.
There has been no new book since the 2013 edition, and there are approximately 1800 beers that meet the criteria now, but Jeff left us with the parting comment that it might be possible that an up to date edition is not too far away.

First to present their beer was Stuart Cail from Harviestoun Brewery in Scotland.

Schiehallion Lager (4.8%) came to us in a 75cl sharing bottle which Stuart informed us that they had just started producing. This bottle conditioned version started as a trial sample which was tested locally before they made the decision to expand. To my mind it tasted a bit flat, with the aroma of burnt tyres, a little maltiness with some lemon in the mix. This faded quickly and the general consensus at our table was that the beer was in poor condition.
The same couldn't be said of the next beer, Ola Dubh at 10.7%. This was the cask strength version which Stuart told us was aged in Highland Park whisky casks. There was a little of the same burnt tyre aroma as the Sciehallion initially but this was quickly overtaken by a nose full of boozy dark chocolate and coffee. It had a deep chocolate flavour and a long, lingering finish, one that completely removed all traces of the previous beer.

Pat McGinty from Marstons then spoke to us about their approach to bottle conditioned beer. For them, he said, it was all about wanting to give the consumer the experience and taste of cask conditioned Marstons Pedigree in a bottle.
The beer is brewed in the traditional way, on the Burton Union System in Burton on Trent, but the new process involved here was understanding how much yeast was needed in the bottle in order to give exactly the result they were after.

After much trial and error they hit upon the winning formula, although there was some initial confusion with consumers over the haze resulting in the yeast in the beer, and helping them understand that bottle conditioning was a continuation of the brewing process. He finished his talk with the following phrase which summed up what they are striving for: "Bottle conditioning is the way forward, it's what real beer is all about."

We were then giving some of the bottle conditioned Marstons Pedigree (4.5%) to try, and they really have done a fantastic job with it. The aroma retains that classic sulphurous 'Burton snatch', with a hint of cardboard and a little roasted malt. Quite thin, it was clean and fresh tasting, with that distinctive Pedigree malty flavour with the merest hint of berry fruits. It was astonishingly close to the cask version in great condition and I would have welcomed the opportunity to taste them side by side.

Next it was the turn of Justin Hawke from Moor Beer Co. who talked about the influence that both cask beer and the beer he had whilst stationed in Germany with the US military had on both him and the beer he now produces.

After a night out drinking they would notice that the naturally cloudy, unfiltered, naturtrub beer he and his companions had been drinking meant that they avoided hangovers the following day, but it was cask beer that he had fallen in love with and it was this that led him to come to the UK and start brewing. This was something that, once you know, is obvious to see and taste in Moor's beer, something that has made their uncompromising position on both unfiltered beer and taste in abundance both admired and respected.
When it came to canning the beer Justin was adamant that he didn't want to give up the natural conditioning of the beer, and both the sugar and yeast content was carefully measured to ensure that he was content that the same beer goes into cask, keg, bottle and can.

All three of the beers we tasted from Moor were out of the can, with Nor Hop (4.1%) with it's score of 100% for style on RateBeer being first. This has a gorgeous tropical aroma, lime mango, passion fruit and dragon fruit all inter-mingling wonderfully, and with a wonderful taste that delivers everything the nose promises.

Do It Together is a Mango Tea Pale Ale at 5.2% abv, with a slightly musty green tea and passion fruit aroma. It glides over the tongue elegantly before delivering those flavours all over again for maximum impact.

The final beer from Moor was Old Freddy Walker Strong Old Ale (7.3%) which had a strong chocolate malt aroma, like a chocolatey horlicks. It was thinner than I remembered but the chocolate malt punch was swift and welcome, the taste fading wonderfully slowly leaving a subtle reminder of the beer before.

Roger Ryman of St. Austell Brewery spoke of how a trip to Marstons to see what they were brewing led him to set up his own version of the Union System to experiment with. We were told that St. Austell are possibly the biggest producer of bottle conditioned beer in the UK, with Proper Job IPA (5.5%) taking up a third of that production.
We were then given bottles of Proper Job to try. First brewed in 2006, the bottle conditioned version is filtered then re-seeded with yeast and when it was tested against a 'bright' filtered version with consumers there was no comparison; the bottle conditioned beer "absolutely smashed it".

The initial aroma reminded me a little of 'cheesy' feet, although that may have been down to the brie I had just consumed, but there was more of that burnt tyre aroma I experienced with the Harviestoun beers (which I am inclined to believe may be down to the carbon dioxide produced in re-fermentation) before a wave of lemon hit my senses. The beer itself was clean and fresh tasting, with some biscuity malt accentuated by the lemon notes from the hops. It finished clean and succintly on that same biscuity lemon note, a beautiful beer by all accounts. I can't remember the last time I had some Proper Job but I'll be making a point of having at least one next time I do.

The Bad Habit Abbey Tripel (8.2%) was the second and final beer from St.Austell, one that Roger confessed was a bit of an indulgence as he wanted to explore the flavours of the Belgian beers he loves so much. This had a sharp, sweet aroma, with that classic Belgian yeast note reminding me quite considerably of Chimay Blue. There were some dark fruit notes in the flavour and it tasted quite sweet, however we all noted that it didn't linger on the palate as you may expect a Belgian beer of this strength to do, rather it rinsed itself away, the flavours all collapsing in on themselves before seemingly disappearring down a drain in the middle of the tongue. None of us found this unwelcome just unusual, and it's certainly a beer I'd like to try again.

Our final speaker of the evening was John Keeling of Fullers someone who is never short of an opinion. He also had two bottles of their Vintage Ale with him which I will come to in a moment, but before that I want to start with three direct quotes that I noted down from what he said which seemed to sum up what this whole evening was about. They were:

"Bottle conditioned beers are never the same as cask beers."

"Bottle conditioned beers are the supreme example of small package beers."

and lastly,

"Bottle conditioned beers exist in their own right."

The first Vintage Ale was the most recent, the 2017 (8.5%) which was relatively light tasting. It positively glowed in the glass with a distinct raisin and biscuit aroma. I last had this beer shortly after it's release and someone remarked after their first sip how it had changed in the last 9 months. The slight bitterness I remember had faded away and this was a more complex beer, the raisin notes accentuated, hinting at plums and damsons, but that malty biscuit backbone was still very defined.
The next bottle was the Vintage Ale 2010 (8.5%) and this was an altogether different affair. Noticeably darker in the glass, it had a more complex raisin and fudge aroma with flashes of madeira and whisky coming through as well. It was also fuller over the tongue, with a big burst of raisin, date and dark fudge, none of the biscuit to support it either, rather the malts were chewy like burnt toffee, it was absolutely stunning. These flavours stayed with me after I'd drunk it, building with each sip, a truly beautiful experience.

Fortunately I have a bottle of this, and many other years of the Vintage Ale at home, although when asked about tasting this at the right time John suggested we should,
"Buy 64 bottles of each vintage on release and try it every three months or so."

He went on to explain the method they use at Fullers for the Vintage Ale where they chill the beer at one fifth gravity, although I missed the next part as I was rather distracted by the sublime beer in the glass in front of me.

When asked about the changes in the beer and how to account for them he replied in a phrase that was honest and summed up my experience and the science of ageing beer for me:

"Changes are so difficult to predict so you just have to enjoy the ride as it goes on."

After thanking the speakers and respectfully applauding it was revealed that there was one more treat in store for us that evening.
When we had arrived a line of vintage Bass ales was pointed out to us along the shelf at the back of one of the rooms. A beautiful display of bottle conditioned beer I thought at the time, and took an appropriate picture as it wasn't too crowded in the area at that point.

When the noise of applause had died down it was revealed that they were opening a bottle of the Bass & Co. Ratcliff Strong Ale, brewed on the 16th December 1869, for us to try.

We were all given thimble-fulls of this beer which, considering it's age I tasted with some trepidation. It poured a murky brown colour, and the aroma had a touch of dusty port about it. Initially muddy and musty it quickly changed character and became a deep rich madeira flavour. Hints of raisin, not unlike the last Vintage Ale, began to appear, and it finished incredibly smooth and complex. At nearly 150 years old this was certainly a beer to savour but my small pour was finished far too quickly for my liking. Luckily there was still plenty left so I managed to grab another so that I could enjoy this rare and wonderful experience all over again.
Tonight had truly shown what a wonderful thing bottle conditioned beer made by people that really care about the beer they produce and the taste the consumer enjoys, can be. As a prelude to the launch of Bottle Conditioned Beer Week in 2019 (see the flyer at the top of this post if you missed that bit) it couldn't have been much better.
I'd like to thank Marstons for organising the event, R&R Teanwork for the invite, the speakers for their informative and enjoyable words, particularly for humouring me and fielding my additional questions afterwards, and to The White Horse on Parsons Green for such a wonderful evening. I had an amazing time and am extremely grateful to everyone involved. It was also great to catch up with so many of my fellow writers and beer lovers too, cheers to all.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Ongar: Going Downhill (Relatively) Quickly

Ongar: Going Downhill (Relatively) Quickly

The clouds gathered in judgement above me, dark and brooding with the occasional patch of grey-blue revealing itself at brief and surprising moments. The summer would bring a heatwave that nobody had predicted, but this springtime afternoon was like an uncertain and fickle child, changing its mind on a whim.

Ongar is only twenty minutes on the bus from my hometown of Brentwood, fifteen minutes on a clear run and with a driver who wants to maximise their turnaround time, but from the image obsessed high street I had left behind it seems half a world away.

The word "Ongar" means grassland, and it is home to the remains of a Norman fort. Only the earthworks remain and they are overgrown and dismal, preserved only by a crude wooden fence. The Central Line used to come out this far until 1994, but the trains now terminate at Epping and Ongar feels as if it it's resigned to the fact that they will never come back despite the occasional petition requesting its return.

The number 21 bus drops me at the top of the High Street and I cross the road and head into The Cock Tavern.

The Cock Tavern is a small, one bar pub at the top of the high street, and claims to be the oldest public house in the town. It certainly dates back to before 1765 when the first reference occurs, and at one stage it most certainly brewed its own beer.

It's a white weather-boarded building, a Good Beer Guide regular and always has a good selection of well kept cask beer. Today they have Otter Brewery Springfest, Mighty Oak The Joy Of Six, Harveys IPA and Red Fox Black Fox Porter. The latter is my choice and it has a medium bodied, pleasant coffee finish, a is a good start to the afternoon.
Music is playing, seemingly coming from the bar and the woman behind it is having a fairly animated conversation about her up coming holidays, and in particular how the pressure  on the aeroplane will affect her ears. This holds my attention for all of five seconds so I look around at my surroundings for something more stimulating.

A central brick fireplace dominates the room with a television on it that thankfully is not on, and this would seem to indicate that it once had two bars. A door, no longer in use confirms this. There are a selection of newspapers, leather easy chairs,  and tables with menus looking redundant as no-one is eating because, apart from those at the bar I'm the only one in there.

Despite the undeniable quality of the beer there's not really any atmosphere, but I expect it gets quite lively in the evenings, live music appears to be a regular occurrence. This is a pub I know quite well and I occasionally pop in here, if time allows, when I'm in Ongar to see a client. There's nothing to hold me here today though so I finish my pint and move on.

Crossing the road and heading down the hill I go into The Kings Head. This is the most central pub in the town and a plaque above its central arch proclaiming the date 1697, which is presumably the year it was built.

 Entering the bar through the open doorway to my left I immediately get the sense that this is a pub for diners not drinkers. The cramped bar area displays mainly keg beer, Kozel and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (off at time of visit - a not-so-subtle glass placed over the taps a clear indication). This is confirmed when a group of three come in and enquire about lunch. "Straight down to the restaurant area and they'll take care of you there", the barman tells them, and they walk the length of the bar, disappearing down some steps and out of sight.

Further along the bar, nearer the restaurant end I spy three hand pumps, two of which have London Pride and a third that has George Gale's Seafarer. This is the one I go for, its honey and lemon hop character cutting through the lingering taste of the Porter I finished in The Cock not five minutes earlier.

It's pleasant enough in here at this time of day, relatively quiet, with the piped music at just the right level so as not to be intrusive.

The beer and the signage make it clear that this is a Fullers pub, or at least pub-cum-restaurant affair, my glass carries their branding, and I recall hearing good things about the food here so its good to see a reasonable beer selection. It seems a very organised and efficient place despite the barman disappearing for fairly lengthy intervals, although it is quiet, and nobody who arrives is kept waiting.

The building itself retains many of its original Georgian features and, even without the research that confirms it, it's plain to se that this was a coaching inn at some point. Once there must have been two separate bars here considering that there are two separate entrances and fireplaces, and it's good to see that they've kept some of the original features, although it's the cast iron radiators (a Victorian addition) that supplies the heating now.

I'm surprised to find that I feel far more relaxed here than at The Cock, and this is despite the hubbub and banter of a group of workmen near me who are making a little too much fuss as they leave.

Finishing my drink I decide to have a quick look around and notice a separate room across the archway from the main part of the pub and head inside. Crossing the courtyard I can see the restaurant sprawling languidly at the rear of the building, it's white weather boarded exterior looking rather inviting. The room I enter is intriguing and surprising, and may have been a waiting room for the coaches, although now it looks rather plush, decorated as it is with skulls, horns and antlers and though I'd love to linger here a while, it's time to move on.

As I continue my journey down the hill, I'm caught behind a middle-aged man in a grey tracksuit taking his squat overweight dog for a walk, constantly drawing aggressively at a greasy roll-up between his lips. I manage to get around him and his noxious fog just as I pass the beautiful half-timbered building that was once The Bell. The support strut for its sign still points towards the high street, lonely and redundant as this is now a private dwelling although flashes of its former glory are still evident. It's the kind of building that will always say "Pub" what ever its use in later years, one that you feel is still rather proud that it was a lively social hub of the community even if its glory days are now passed.

Presently I arrive at The Royal Oak.

The Royal Oak is a strange pub, and it's very quiet at this time of day. So quiet in fact that I stand at the empty bar for almost five minutes before anyone realises that I'm there at all. "It's very quiet in here", I say to the lady who appears from what appears to be the door to the toilets and asks if she can help me,
"It always is until about half two", comes the reply.

The beer selection holds nothing of interest for me, but out of politeness I order a half of Kronenberg (I can't remember the last time I did that) as it's the best of a bad bunch. Fosters, Carling and Stella Artois are my other options, although I do notice some bottles of Old Speckled Hen in the fridge.

I get the feeling that this is a locals pub, although it's clearly an old one and has absolutely heaps of character. The building itself is around 400 years old, although for some of that time it was both a fishmongers and public house, a mix of trades that I suspect would seem very much at odds to todays drinkers.

Greene King IPA beer mats hint that this may feature on the forlorn hand pumps some of the time, although today they are purely an ornamental feature. Maybe they are awaiting a delivery, but the lack of pump clips of any variety seems to indicate that cask beer may well be off the menu.

Darts team trophies are displayed on the wall and there's a prominent dart board so it's logical to guess that this is what the pub is known for around here, and whilst there are darts behind the bar tempting me to 'throw a few arrows' they would inevitably prolong my drinking time here.

The lady who served me at the bar now has a companion and even though they occasionally look at me with slightly puzzled expressions I get the same feeling of warmth and cosiness here that I got in The Kings Head but not in The Cock. It's an oddly comfortable place, and if they had some decent beer on I'd be coming back, although as it stands this is highly unlikely.

I later discover that it's known locally as the Royal Coke, due to a past reputation, perhaps due to it serving an abundance of a certain brand of fizzy drink. Or perhaps not.

Leaving The Royal Oak and heading to the bottom of the hill I'm confronted by the broad expanse of The Two Brewers. Unfortunately for me it's closed when I arrive, although the sign outside says otherwise. This strikes me as odd for 2.00pm on a Thursday afternoon, but given that the last three pubs I visited were hardly a hive of actively it is perhaps understandable.

I remember this pub well enough, and peering through the window I see it hasn't changed much inside. I did have an amusing tale to relate which ended with a much younger, much drunker version of me slurring "...there's nothing drong with winking" at my companions and falling off my bar stool, but that can't be expanded upon sadly and I move on. I'm a little disappointed, but at least that story is safe for now and no-one need know.

Heading up hill again, away from the high street this time and into Marden Ash I take a left turn onto the Brentwood Road, taking a quick picture between the passing cars and head across the road to The Stag.

The Stag is a pub that I've often passed but never been inside. That is until now, and I'm very glad that I have.

It's a McMullens pub to my surprise, and the five hand pulls have two of their AK, which is what I order, two of Country and one of the dubiously titled Nympho from Rivertown which, I suspect, may be the craft arm of McMullens.

I'm the only customer here as well, and I settle down with my beer a little away from the bar, its light maltiness particularly welcome after the Kronenberg earlier. Countdown is starting on the television just above my head, but I'm not in the mood for word games and manage, with only a modicum of success, to block it out.

This is clearly another old pub, records show that it was built in the eighteenth century and served much of that time as a beerhouse. Similar to the other pubs I've been to today this once had two separate rooms betrayed by, as before, the two separate fire places at either end. It is now one long bar with a smart wooden floor, a green hued fish tank at one end and a rather distracting fruit machine at the other. The continued noise from Countdown combined, other music playing and the flashing fruit machine lights is an overwhelming sensory assault. Thankfully they turn the television off when asked.

A sign advertising Pie and Mash on Fridays and Saturdays would seem to mean that it picks up a bit as the weekend approaches.

The young women behind the bar, one of whom is in the process of finishing a bowl of breakfast cereal, are giggly and chatty when I go to order another drink and this puts me immediately at ease so I pull up a stool there.

The Stag is smaller on the inside than it appears from the road, rather cosy and manages to retain much of its character even with the modern alterations. It is exactly the kind of pub that doesn't immediately seem that inviting when you arrive but after investing some time, as I am able to today, it starts to open up and reveal itself properly. It's almost as if the building itself is as cautious of you as you are of it.

The landlord arrives presently and I discover that the Rivertown beer is called Nymph is reality, some wag having added the extra "O" on the blackboard and my suspicions are confirmed as it is a brewery in which McMullens have an 'interest'. I recall having seen Rivertown beers when I visited Hertford, the home of McMullens, last year. The brewery itself is a beautiful Victorian building, part of which was very sympathetically being converted into flats.

In conversation I discover that cellar for The Stage is, in actuality a shed adjoining the property which, according to the landlord makes all the keg beers extremely lively. I fail to understand how this is so but I'm sure there's somebody out there who can enlighten me.

He takes me out and shows me the cellar and I can see that there's plenty of outdoor seating and a children's play area should you arrive with younger ones in tow. I'm told it gets quite lively in here on Friday and Saturday evenings, the bar itself holding around 100 people at a push. Given its size I'd have thought that half that number would be a tight fit, but apparently not
I order a pint of the Nymph, and make my way outside just as the brief ray of sunshine I spotted turns into a sudden downpour. Hiding from the rain in the covered area I drink my beer, finding it full-bodied and malty and this, along with the AK, are by far the two best beers I've had today.

The Stag has been a very pleasant surprise and I like it a lot. Out of all those I have been to today this will most certainly be the one I return to when I'm back this way again.

Leaving The Stag I contemplate walking back to the high street and checking if The Two Brewers has opened yet, but time has caught up with me and, after checking the bus times, I note that there's one due in five minutes. There also happens to be a bus stop right across the road which pretty much makes my mind up for me.

The rain has stopped now, and just as I board the bus the sun breaks through once more. I write up the last of my notes and look out of the window at the featureless fields. I think I might just have time for a swift half in Brentwood before I walk home.